Women in virus-hit Iran tech sector fight to keep hard-won jobs

TEHRAN (AFP) – From the hustle and bustle of a startup, Fereshteh Kasrai now works from home, like many Iranian women fighting to keep hard-won tech jobs as the coronavirus outbreak stirs uncertainty.

Iran said the COVID-19 disease has claimed more than 5,200 lives and infected close to 83,000 over the past two months, in the Middle East’s deadliest outbreak.

Kasrai said working remotely from the confines of her home amid the health crisis has had its upsides and downsides.

“Emotionally, it’s very bad, but it’s more efficient,” she said in a teleconference call.

She comes across as tired, contrasting with the energetic tone when AFP met her at her workplace in Tehran a few weeks ago.

Photos show employees taking part in a meeting at a headquarters housing Alibaba, Iran’s largest online travel booking service, in the capital Tehran. PHOTOS: AFP

Fatemeh Ashrafiand Anis Amirarjmandi at the headquarters housing Alibaba in Tehran

“For me, it’s a little bit difficult. I miss my colleagues and I miss the days when we interacted,” she said.

The 44-year-old is head of human resources at Alibaba, Iran’s largest online travel booking service. She doesn’t hide her concerns for the startup whose core business has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Kasrai and her colleagues had to adapt at short notice to ensure they didn’t lose out.

“We are having daily meetings and video calls. It’s not the same quality as face-to-face work but it’s the best we can do.”

To enter Alibaba’s headquarters is to enter another Iran, a short distance from impoverished districts of the capital.

An “Iran Silicon Valley” sign adorns the entrance of the building.

The interior is trendy with giant cushions in rest areas and glass enclosed offices where staff focus their gaze on high-end computers.

Dressed in tight-fitting jeans and scarves that reveal their hair, women work alongside men.

Of the nearly 700 employees at Alibaba, 42 per cent are women. Some have senior roles, a challenge in this patriarchal society.

“I worked with three large companies before Alibaba… and I felt that growing in those places requires a certain condition,” Anis Amir Arjmandi, a legal manager, said referring to nepotism.

“The opportunities I’m given here – which is not because of my gender or my position, but the company’s way of doing things – enable me to have a degree of freedom,” she said.

Her colleague Fatemeh Ashrafi, 38, says there are more opportunities in startups.

“There’s more space to express oneself, since the bureaucratic hierarchies are less intrusive,” she said.

“We can see our managers whenever we want. We don’t need to wait at their doors and ask for time” to meet.

Tech journalist Khosro Kalbasi said women benefit from working in startups as they are more progressive with younger managers.

“Over the years the number of women employed by these companies has grown,” he said.

Iran is one of the Middle East’s most connected with an Internet penetration rate of 87 per cent.

Azadeh Kian, professor of sociology in Paris and a specialist on Iran, says women account for 70 per cent of engineering and science students in the Islamic republic.

“It is a sector where they know they can have more room for improvement and the possibility of innovating,” Kian says.

Kasrai said Iranian women are becoming increasingly assertive in the workplace.

“They have no fear to express themselves,” she said.

She said she was pleased to see “as many women as we have men” in Alibaba’s tech division, breaking the “taboo” that a programmer must be a man.

Startups began emerging in Iran in the 2000s, before really taking off from 2013.

But the country’s tech sector was hit hard by the reinstatement of United States (US) sanctions in 2018, after the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.

In an unexpected twist, the sanctions were seized upon by Iranian entrepreneurs as an opportunity to launch even more startups.

With the benefit of being protected from foreign competition, they took inspiration from global giants to create local equivalents.

Among them are Digikala, Iran’s answer to US online retailer Amazon, as well as Tap30 and Snapp!, which are similar to US ride-hailing service Uber.

Mona Ahmadi said she has flourished at Tap30, where she manages around 140 call centre workers, 61 of them young women.

“I’m a workaholic,” said the 33-year-old, dressed in a denim jacket and leggings.

“I’ve always wanted to have a good job and social status,” she said with a smile.

Forty-five percent of Tap30’s staff are women.

“Most of them are less than 30 years old, and they are employed in all sectors – marketing, technical, HR, call centre,” said Negar Arab, who is head of communications.

As well as Arab’s own position, the company’s finance and legal divisions also have women at the helm, she added.

But Arab said the coronavirus outbreak has turned her life upside down. She said it has made her “very busy” between working remotely and taking care of her daughter and her family.

One of the biggest success stories among Iran’s startups is Takhfifan, an online retailer founded by Nazanin Daneshvar and her sister.

Established eight years ago, Takhfifan employs 350 people but its offices are now closed and working from home is widespread.

“Everything has come as a bit of a shock,” Daneshvar said on the phone, her baby babbling away in the background.

“The (staff) are really doing a good job although it is very difficult and can be exhausting” to work from home and to handle things remotely using apps, she said.

She also lamented that there aren’t enough “women at the critical and top, top positions in e-commerce”. Times had already been tough for women long before the coronavirus outbreak.

“In the first couple of years, I used to take my dad along (to meetings) because nobody accepted me as the manager,” Daneshvar said.

But even now it is still “two times more difficult” to work as a woman, she said.

“The reality I always fight against is that they judge men based on their potential but judge women on their past performance.”

As a result, many end up quitting, says Daneshvar.